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ROCKFORD, Ill. – Tournament fishing has perils, but for Gene Henricks, those dangers threatened to end an activity that he and his son Mark have been doing for decades.
“I love fishing with my son — it’s the best thing on earth,” Gene said.
Since the late 1970s, Gene and Mark have participated in fishing tournaments in Illinois and Wisconsin, with great success.
“There’s some really good fishermen in Wisconsin, and I don’t mind taking their money,” Gene said with a laugh. “There isn’t a town there where I don’t know somebody.”
However, as the years went by, Gene developed a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. With this condition, the upper and lower chambers of the heart beat out of time, sometimes too slowly, quickly or irregularly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, also called an arrhythmia.
This would cause Gene to have dizzy spells, and greatly increased his risk of a stroke. Eventually he had a stroke in October 2021.
To prevent another stroke, he was prescribed blood thinners, which made the most common dangers involved with fishing – being snagged by a hook or cut by the sharp fins or gills of a fish – even more treacherous for him. Blood thinners prevent blood from clotting, so even a small cut can cause excessive bleeding that can lead to life-threatening loss of blood.
“You can’t go through an eight-hour tournament without getting hooked or scratched,” Gene said.
While he would wear protective gloves when handling fish, the risk was still there, and indeed his father still got cut or snagged by a fishhook, according to Mark.
The stress of his father’s condition made fishing more challenging for the pair, he said.
“I had to know where the nearest hospital was and where all the boat launches were because you might start in one place on the lake but end up in another and you need to know where that launch is in case you need an ambulance,” Mark said.
UW Health in northern Illinois offered Gene a solution that could take the stress and much of the danger out of the Henricks’ tournament fishing. After years of living a life on blood thinners, Gene researched alternatives and everything he found online kept leading back to a procedure that implants a device in the heart called a Watchman.
The device is essentially a plug that blocks off a cavity in the left side of the heart where people with atrial fibrillation commonly develop blood clots that can break free and move to the brain resulting in a stroke, according to Dr. Sanders Chae, electrophysiologist, UW Health in northern Illinois.
Like blood thinners, the device reduces the risk of stroke by about 66%, but there is no risk of uncontrolled bleeding, he said.
“Many are often caught between a rock and a hard place,” Chae said. “On the one hand, they are at risk for strokes because they develop clots; on the other hand, they are at risk for bleeding because the treatment to prevent clots causes bleeding.”
The device is implanted via a thin tube that is pushed up to the heart through a large vein in the leg. The device is permanently set in place and the tube is removed. The entire procedure takes up to two hours, and the patient is kept overnight for observation. UW Health in northern Illinois performs about 10 Watchman procedures a month.
“It’s been terrific, I can cut myself and not have to worry about it,” he said. “I mean, when you do a bass tournament, you are going to get cut."
The fishing buddies wasted no time after the procedure in ramping up their tournament schedule for 2024, with a full slate of 14 tournaments, and maybe more, according to Mark.
“Just overall between the procedure and how he is feeling, he’s got more energy, and getting rid of the blood thinners is great because I don’t have to worry about it if he is cut,” he said. “It’s like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”